When we arrived in Johannesburg there was a clear intent and intensity that came with the week we were spending. Structured museum tours facilitated structured conversations which left me with structured thoughts on the history presented. Arriving in Cape Town that structure collapsed. I have found myself attempting to string together thoughts on something to feel as if I have an understanding of anything. But instead, I’ve been left with fragmented pieces and more questions that don’t seem to have clear answers. When I think of what is in store for the future, my first thought is that this is one of the many questions that don’t have a clear answer. But my best attempt at providing one is broken down into two parts – my future, and the future of memorialization in South Africa (with one I am able to control, while the other is mere speculation).
Over excessive cups of Rooibos tea next to the fire, I have spent far too many nights staying up far too late debating about what next. What am I going to get out of this trip? Will anything really change when I get back to Duke? How will I explain the complexity of what seems to be a straightforward experience when presented on paper? The honest answer is I will most likely get on the plane in a few weeks and be just as confused as I am now. Yes, I might be able to discuss South African politics and history with a bit more context and confidence, and yes I spent two weeks with an awesome group of people (that once were complete strangers even though we go to the same school?) who have opened my eyes in way more ways than I could have imagined, but so what?
This experience so far has made me realize that my personal future is embedded in appreciating these smaller moments and learning to be okay with questions left unresolved. I have learned how to understand both sides of an argument without having a strong opinion of my own. I have realized more the space in which I occupy and the aspects of my identity I bring to the table when contributing to the conversation. I am not going to walk away from this experience with some neatly wrapped take away like I thought I would. But I do know I have learned far more than expected – whether it was from professionally curated museums in Johannesburg or casual (but equally as important) conversations over tea in the middle of the night.
Maybe it is the nature of working in a museum, but the second component of the notion of ‘moving forward’ instantly draws me to the idea of memorialization. On Sunday, our group finally did our highly anticipated trip to Robben Island. I expected to feel something there, think something, or leave with a whole new list of questions and unfinished thoughts. Instead, I found myself on a bus, being driven around the island on what resembled more of a commercialized movie set tour than a historical display of a place of suffering and significance. In its realm of commercialism and tourist appeal, the most authentic aspect of the experience was an ex-prisoner leading a tour of the prison with Mandela’s cell. But this interaction only left me questioning how will these tours differ when the generation of ex-prisoners have passed? How will Robben Island maintain the little authenticity it still holds?
I question the same ideas each day at District Six. What sets the museum distinctly apart from other spaces we have visited is the personal anecdotes provided by ex-residents of the area. Yes, I can do a walking tour myself of the neighborhood and understand that it looks vastly different than it did in the 1970s. But to do the same walk with Mr. Brown and stand in a parking lot (that I probably would have walked by without thinking twice) and have him share that his childhood home once stood where a red Toyota is now parked holds a different weight.
Both Robben Island and District Six depend on the authentic personal connection provided from those who were directly affected to operate in the manner in which they do today. How do you maintain that authenticity with generations to come? Memorialization in South Africa presents a unique space because the history is so fresh. The trauma endured is raw and ongoing, and many problems haven’t reached a point of resolution, let alone restitution. I am working alongside people who lived through Apartheid and are still affected by its repercussions daily. How do you maintain that same understanding and connection in 20 years time?
These are all questions (among many others) I don’t have an answer to just yet, and perhaps never will, but in the hopes of moving forward myself, they are points to still consider without trying to neatly resolve.